For more revenue, NCAA needs to fix football, not meddle with March Madness

A slightly expanded version of my Friday column on expanding the NCAA Tournament …

INDIANAPOLIS — I showed up at the Final Four on Thursday and a microeconomics lecture broke out.

Don’t believe me? Listen to this line from Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s vice president of basketball and business strategies (as if the title doesn’t say it all) when he was asked how much money the NCAA expects it could make if it adopted a proposal to expand the men’s tournament to 96 teams.

“The structure of it is to provide inventory that allows and assures continued growth in the package,” Shaheen said. “But at this point in time, we don’t know the quantification of that.”

Huh? Inventory? Are we going to play ball here or what?

Get ready, of course. When the bagmen start getting up on the podium and laying out “models” of the kind Shaheen explained Thursday, it’s all over but the voting. They’re going to 96 teams, or at least intend to.

There’s a lot of ground to cover on this, so keep up.

The NCAA IS LOOKING AT EXPANSION because it has a window, in the eighth-year of its 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS, to opt out of the deal in search of more money. It could also do nothing, keep the current back-loaded deal and collect around $2 billion over the final three seasons, then re-do the deal.

But ESPN and potential partners are hovering, and an expanded tournament could yield a far bigger payday. The “C” in NCAA does, after all, stand for “Cha-Ching!”

HOW WOULD IT WORK? Shaheen said Thursday that a 96-team tournament would start and end at the same time as the current tourney. The top 8 seeds in each region would get byes. Sixty-four teams would be in action on the opening Thursday and Friday. The tournament would be down to 32 teams by the end of the first weekend.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of the second week, the field would be whittled to 16, then the regionals and semifinals would move forward as they do now.

WOULD IT WORK? Sure, in some ways. More basketball, what’s not to like? It’s been suggested that no one would watch a team ranked in the 30s play a team in the 90s. Shaheen countered that those games happen all season and people watch them. Give him points for candor. Sure, it’s crappy basketball, but it would be NCAA Tournament crappy basketball.

Said Shaheen: “Well, throughout the season right now . . . there are a number of sold-out games where you have teams playing in the top 10 that play teams in the 300s, and the room is completely sold.”

Yes, people would watch (“Field of Dreams” reference coming). People will watch, Ray. They’ll watch for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn on ESPN not knowing for sure why they’re doing it, just because the games are on.

SO WHAT IS BAD ABOUT IT? Plenty. First, the second week of the tournament would keep players and fans, at least of the winning teams, on the road for an entire week. That’s more time away from class, at a time when the NCAA is acknowledging that Division I men’s basketball lags behind the rest of college sports in academic performance.

(At the same time, this is an empty argument from some ESPN quarters. You want to improve academics in men’s basketball? Stop scheduling tipoffs at 9 p.m. and later for men’s teams on the East coast. Those late-night logistics have a more negative impact on players’ challenges with school than a few extra days of NCAA play. Not to mention that the potential of a blockbuster ESPN bid for the tournament might be fueling all this anyway.)

Shaheen had trouble acknowledging this missed-days point. By the time John Feinstein of The Washington Post finished questioning him on it, Shaheen not only looked like he didn’t know what days students would be traveling in the second week of the tournament, he looked very much like he wasn’t sure what day it was right then.

Second, the current tournament has an unmistakable and successful rhythm. It works. From the run-up to Selection Sunday, to the bracket and bubble guessing (all right, maybe the end of Bracketology wouldn’t be such a bad thing). Why mess with it?

And third, and most important, the NCAA can only go to this well so often. There are only so many golden eggs under this goose. Maybe it thrives in an expansion to 96. It probably would. But what then? When does it go to 128? Expansion isn’t always the answer. Ask AIG.

FINALLY, WHAT SHOULD THE NCAA REALLY DO? It should leave March Madness alone. If it wants more revenue, it should turn its attention to the guys wearing shoulder pads and ask football to shoulder more of the load.

It’s time for the NCAA to get a handle on postseason football. If it truly needs more revenue, it’s time for this organization to seize the football postseason, administer a championship in line with its other sports championships, and reap the financial rewards that would follow, instead of letting most of the proceeds go to the Bowl Championship Series cartel.

That, of course, would be a huge undertaking, legal and otherwise. But if the NCAA is looking at its long-term financial footing, it would do far better to leverage its football potential than dry up its basketball.

Instead of blowing up the bracket, the NCAA needs to bust up the BCS.

I think we’d all pay to watch that.

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